It can sometimes be a bad thing when filmmakers hire extremely well-known actors to voice their animated characters. In this case, such talents include George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, and Willem Dafoe. The idea here being that if the film is filled with enough talent, we’ll forgive any issues with them or the film as a whole. This tactic sometimes works for audiences, but critics generally don’t succumb. I mention this because I’d like to make it clear that Fantastic Mr. Fox is (mostly) a great film, and that’s not an opinion clouded by the stars.
The story begins with a caper, or more correctly, a series of them. Mr. Fox (Clooney) has been retired from the thievery business for quite some time, but after moving from a hole in the ground to a big tree, he decides to sneak out at night, behind the back of Mrs. Fox (Streep), and rob some farmers of their chickens and apple cider. He claims it will be the “last job,” which you’ll recognize as a trope from heist movies. This is not at all how the film turns out. I am very glad it didn’t take this direction.
Instead, it focuses more on the aftermath of the robberies, which involves a farmer (Michael Gambon) vowing revenge against the fox. A “war” emerges, and after this point I don’t even want to begin ruining what you’ll get to watch in this movie. There’s family drama, quirky characters, a lot of comedy, inspirational speeches, some incredible stop-motion animation — it’s similar to that used by director Wes Anderson in his earlier film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou — and a film that is not boring even for one second.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is an adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel published in 1970. Thanks to the stop-motion animation, the film version could be quite faithful to the book. There are minor changes here and there, as well as some added scenes to pad the length and increase character depth, but fans of the book should be very pleased with this movie. Those who haven’t even heard of the book should be happy, too, because this is a very enjoyable movie, adaptation or not.
It works because it has interesting characters who are not solely defined by their quirks, sharp dialogue, beautiful animation and character models — the fur is incredibly realistic — as well as a layer of depth for the parents who are forced into seeing it by their children. This isn’t, strictly speaking, a “children’s film,” and in fact might be a more enjoyable watch if you’re over the age of twelve. You’ll get much more out of it if you no longer go “look at the pretty foxes” for 90 minutes.
Part of the humor for me came from the way that Fantastic Mr. Fox self-censors. Instead of having the dialogue re-written to account for a PG rating, or bleeping out all of the profanity, the swear words have all been changed to the word “cuss.” A scene involving an argument between two characters winds up having the word “cuss” thrown around quite often, and it’s hilarious. It’s not as smart or ironic as much of the other dialogue, but this technique stood out to me.
It also maintains a theme of the film, and it’s characters, being awfully self-aware. That’s not a bad thing, and it definitely made me laugh more than once, but these talking, anthropomorphized animals seem to know that we’re watching them. They seem deliciously aware that their situations relate to ours. The father-son dynamic, for instance, often gives off the appearance that we’re being talked to directly, as if it’s being exaggerated for our benefit.
That isn’t to say that it doesn’t have one, relatively significant problem. In order to talk about this, some ending spoilers will need to be discussed. If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want some (somewhat minor) plot details spoiler, go watch the film and come back. It’s definitely worth seeing, but on a thematic level it’s slightly uneven, all thanks to the way that it concludes. This is your warning.
Okay. Through most of Fantastic Mr. Fox, the characters discuss that they’re all unique, they’re all wild animals, and that we all have to find our place in this world. We’re also shown that we shouldn’t let bullies — the farmers — force us out of our natural habitats. The ending has the characters living in the sewers with access to a supermarket. Neither of these places is the wild animals’ natural habitats. It also shows their willingness to be pushed around by people bigger than them. It’s true that the irony of the situation — when we learn that the supermarket is owned by the three farmers — makes it feel like they’re “sticking it to the man,” but thematically it contradicts some of the earlier parts of the film.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is a really enjoyable film that only starts to break down, thematically, in its final few moments. Irony is put over consistency, and while it’s funny it does leave a bad taste in your mouth if you try to think about what the earlier moments in the picture were building toward. Despite this, the characters, dialogue, situations, animation, models, voice work, and sense of humor all make the film worth seeing.